Books Are Dead, Long Live Books
by Priscilla Coit Murphy

"Tell us how it will be with letters, with literature and books a hundred years hence!"

"If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg's invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products . . . .our grandchildren will no longer trust their works to this somewhat antiquated process, now become very easy to replace by -"

That statement was written for Scribner's magazine in 1894, at the end of the previous century, in enthusiastic response to recent technological developments. Its author, Octave Uzanne, completed his prediction with the word "phonography." For him, the reproduction of sound heralded the end of print mediation between author and audience.

Because "reading . . . soon brings on great weariness,"[1] phonography would ease the physical fatigue (from the positions imposed by reading) and excessive burden on the eyes. Dismissing concern about the expense and weight of phonographs, he was confident that they would soon become quite inexpensive and portable -- suitable for taking a "promenade" using "small cylinders as light as celluloid penholders, capable of containing five or six hundred words," (see figure 1). [2]

The only draw-back - the absence of illustration -- would be met by the simultaneous enjoyment of "Mr. Edison's kinetograph," projecting pictures on the living room wall in synchrony with the phonographic narrative (see figure 2).[3]

Uzanne did anticipate some attendant social change: "Libraries will be transformed into phonographotecks," and bibliophiles, who would become "phonographiles," "will still surround themselves with rare works ... bound in morocco cases."[4] Questioned about the elitism of the proposed scheme, Uzanne saw "the people" served through "fountains of literature in the streets," wired for casual listening, along with communal listening in specially wired apartment buildings or train cars (see figures 3, 4).[5]

Above all, the relationship between author and reader was to change. "Readers" would now be able to hear the voice of the author directly. The author, having duly copyrighted his voice and narration, could preserve the benefit of his works for himself, while the nature of the celebrity-author would change:

Men of letters will not be called Writers . . . but rather, Narrators. . . . The art of utterance will take on un-heard-of importance. . . . The ladies will no longer say in speaking of a successful author, `What a charming writer!' All shuddering with emotion, they will sigh, `Ah, how this "Teller's" voice thrills you, charms you, moves you.' " [6]
Were Uzanne writing today, one might expect words like "orality," "interactivity," and "media convergence" to appear, yet the core of his discussion was a trope on novel machinery and a few of the immediate, first-order effects of adoption. However, many of the assumptions underlying his view of the future have been present within later spates of predictions that the book-as-we-know-it would soon disappear. Before embarking on discussion of those assumptions, it is worth examining some of the later waves of - it now seems - premature obituaries for the bound book.

Uzanne's exuberant futurism came with the earliest awareness of what has come to be called the Technological Age. A certain fearlessness, similar to that seen in events like the 1893 World's Exposition, would soon give way to doubts, in the face of increasing complexity as mass society employed technology in its pursuits. Just as society became acquainted with one new medium, another would come along. Those most directly affected - other than the audience - found themselves repeatedly challenged to divine what would happen to their own medium as a new one appeared.

In 1919 Rupert Hughes, writing for Bookman, discussed another writer who "viewed with alarm" the theft of children's attention, as moving pictures lured them away from books. "The child of today knows more than is good for it. Murder and arson are its daily food."[7] Equally worried about the minds of adults, a 1925 publisher saw the public's attention overwhelmed, to the detriment of books:

Personally I agree with the pessimists that all these things, especially the overproduction of magazines and newspapers filled with trivial and cheap contents, injure the book business. Human beings have only a certain maximum of leisure, and if they spend an evening reading a sex magazine and listening to the radio there is no time left for a good book."[8]
However, he had faith that books would yet prevail: "Ultimately, I believe all of these so-called obstacles will redound to our advantage, for surely automobiles and radios and movies, yea, even sex magazines, stimulate the mind, and eventually when the mind is sufficiently stimulated and in the right direction we have a new book-reader."[9]

In 1927 the technology of convenience led a journalist to guess that radio would soon steal print media's thunder. He drew the inference from an M. I. T. dinner at a New York hotel, at which the first "radio newspaper" was published. He foresaw an automatic printing machine in each home, radio-operated and able to offer whole pages of newspapers instantaneously as news broke.[10] While he did not make the leap to home printing of book pages, eleven years later another writer was to extrapolate a little further, this time imagining the precursors of microfilm. Arthur Train, writing in 1938 for Harper's, predicted that fifty years hence the "man of 1988" would not only receive his newspaper via facsimile machine, but he would possess few books, reading them at home from "tiny reels of film" projected onto the screen of a "reading machine."[11]

As mass culture was becoming a defining characteristic of American society, many commentators on the future of books found themselves looking for a good defense. Richard Mealand, at one time head of the writing and story department of Paramount Pictures, wrote in 1946 for Publishers Weekly about the relative worth of books and movies, in a reported argument among a producer, writer, publisher, and a "sensible looking lady with up-turned horn-rimmed glasses." She claimed not to get as much out of movies as she did from a good book, and said she'd "gladly pay three dollars for a good book" but resented "having to pay more than a dollar for even the best picture." The producer pronounced her a "reading-woman" who wouldn't go to movies, anyway. "Some people take to drink, or dope. Others go to movies. Others listen to the radio. Others read books. But they're all trying to experience life without going out and actually experiencing it."[12]

As the great one-eyed monster lumbered over the horizon and began to overrun American culture, Saturday Review's august Bennett Cerf sounded an early alarm in 1948, raising the spectre of undermined book sales and deterioration of reading:

By the end of 1950, . . . the panic will be on in earnest. . . . Publishers and authors can only hope that they will be able to get a small cut of the gravy - and that after the novelty of television has worn off, people again will prefer a good book, to the spectacle of two unknown prize-fighters staggering around a ring, or a syrupy-voice huckster proclaiming the virtues of Dinkelspiel's Deodorant.[13]
By 1950 the panic was indeed on. Now it wasn't just books but reading itself that was again feared to be in peril. Life magazine publisher Andrew Heiskell asked "Have the Newer Media Made Reading Obsolete?" - specifically addressing the advent of television. No, he said: "On the contrary, they are all, to a large extent, complementary rather than mutually exclusive." In his view, the changes in democracy were demanding increased flow of information to the public, and creating even better media consumers: "the habitual book reader also reads more magazines, sees more movies, looks at more newspapers than non-book readers." He welcomed the newer media as forces for democratization and as desperately needed competition for the printed page - whose economics of distribution were, in his mind, severely antiquated.

Nonetheless, even those who believed that television would not entirely eradicate book reading were still deeply concerned by the changes it might impose on reading itself. Once again, hands were wrung over the palpable deterioration in taste, thanks to the vulgarizing influence of television. But the quality of the reading act itself began to be scrutinized. Round-tables and symposia about television and reading sprang up, commonly sponsored by industry groups such as the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, or by publishing or library trade publications. One such ABA panelist, educator Florence Brumbaugh, described the effect of television on her pupils, leading them to prefer the liveliness of television to the relative passivity of books: "I believe that the vicarious experiences in the child today are more real than their first-hand experiences." But she saw reason for hope so long as booksellers understood the interactions among media: "Television can interpret books. Books can interpret television. We faced radio. We faced all the other mass media, and we think we won because children are reading more and better than they did in the past."[14]

  In one of Frederick Melcher's weekly PW commentaries of 1950, he quoted another optimistic panelist, who noted that "the users of TV are to a large extent a new market reaching into homes of many who were never book readers."[15] But five years later, August Frugé, director of the University of California Press wrote of continuing gloom in the outlook for books, his primary grounds for hope residing in cheaper paperback prices and a marketing effort to make book ownership "fashionable once again."[16]

In a sadly overlooked Library Quarterly symposium for 1955 devoted to the future of books, several library professionals looked at social, historical, and technological aspects of the book. Though they had the role of libraries and librarians firmly in sight, they found themselves confronted with the definition of what a book is, information and communication theory of the day, the function of books for individuals and society, and the likely consequences of changes in form and format.[17] They were prepared to imagine a bookless information age, but they wanted to know why and how that would come about.

Finally, perhaps the mid-century's most well-rounded discussion of the future of books was publisher Dan Lacy's, written in 1957. Lacy's discussion flowed from his understanding of the media production and distribution systems, including the profound importance of audience behavior and preference. Able to envision transmission of text as "patterns of electrical energy," he nonetheless discounted wholesale relegation of books to electronics, in part because he could not foresee the miniaturization permitted by transistors and microchips, or the efficiency of search-engine programs. For him, converting the Encyclopedia Britannica entirely to "coded series of impulses on magnetic wire such as are fed into electronic brains" had a few catches: the prohibitive cost, the lengthy and labor-intensive coding effort, difficulties in retrieving specific pieces of information, and that "the wire would take up fifteen times as much shelf space as the printed version."[18]

Nonetheless, Lacy believed that economic and audience changes were at least as important as technological change in determining the future of book publishing. Distribution, he noted, was intimately connected to the nature of the entire media system; by implication, changes in other media would therefore have a great impact on books. Readership was a function of increased leisure time, urbanization, and above all higher education, and he wondered about the impact of the baby-boom and expansion of the "educated minority" into a possible majority. Would college education become something different? "Can books be made to serve the non-bookish?"[19] Like many before and since concerned about the future of reading, he worried about issues of attention span, curiosity, and depth.

This brief review is far from exhaustive, and it sidesteps more complete discussions of reading and the definition of a book. But it provides illustrations in which three basic thematic - and very familiar - assumptions seem to be at work.

First of all, there is the simple but compelling assumption that media are rivals of each other, competing for a finite amount of audience resources - time, money, and attention. In this view, one medium's gain is another's loss; the benefits of one medium enable it to replace another less convenient or useful; one medium fixes a problem that another inadequately addresses. While seemingly over-simple, the idea of mutually exclusive rivalry still forms the underpinning of more sophisticated arguments, for example those from ergonomics and cognitive alteration. Uzanne's Ur-Walkman would replace a book because it was physically more comfortable and communicationally more immediate - literally - than a book. Movies are livelier than books, television still more immediate, and even more distracting are sex magazines. Once the audience has become consumer of these, therefore, its attention-span and taste are irrevocably altered - such that staying with the content of a good book becomes impossible - thus television-watchers are lost to skilled book-reading. Later discussions of those such as McLuhan,[20] Meadow,[21] and Birkerts[22] hinge in part on this view of audience choice, practice, and habit.

Moreover, until very recently it has been typical of the publishing industry in particular to conceive of the economics of the media system in this zero-sum paradigm - at its most extreme believing that a dollar spent for a movie, a CD, or software is a dollar taken from the bookseller. Yet Publishers Weekly's industry stock index for 1998 rose 116.6% (compared to 16.1% for the Dow-Jones industrials), led of course by distributor Amazon's 321% rise - which in itself says something about the relationship between books and new media - but also reflecting healthy increases by publishers Time-Warner, Wiley, McGraw-Hill and Viacom.

There is, of course, undeniable validity to the ideas that audiences do not "use" two media for precisely the same function and that audiences will discriminate among media when they spend time and money. And one must thereby also acknowledge the point that competition could be "good" if it improves or refines the communication process. Yet as recently as 1998, when William Mitchell offered a text simultaneously on-line and in paperback, he was surprised to find many using cyberspace to order the paper book. "Why would anyone buy a copy when the online version was right there at no cost?"[23] He declined to answer his own question, but the answer is highly relevant to the future of books. History has thus far shown that no new medium has ever completely replaced an earlier medium, although some have been profoundly altered from their original form.

That alteration relates to the second theme lurking within those early predictions about the end of books - that of our old friend convergence. In this perspective, a new medium so affects an existing one that the two converge to meet all prior purposes and perhaps a few new ones. As Lester Asheim wrote for the Library Quarterly in 1955, "it is not too illogical to anticipate that out of the thesis, book-reading, and its antithesis, the use of nonbook materials, some synthesis may come which retains the best features of both."[24] This assumption can arise out of a certain tunnel-vision found among technophiles, which assumes that only reason a new medium has not been completely accepted in preference to an older one is that science just hasn't yet overcome the problem. Once it does, the traits and functions of the older medium will be combined within the newer one - not disappearing but reborn in new and better form - for example book text on screen.

Uzanne believed that the main obstacle to communication of text through sound was the size of batteries and cylinders, not whether the reader/listener wanted the work read aloud in "real time." One hears strong echoes in current claims that electronic paper will make electronic readers no more cumbersome than bound-paper books.[25]

The argument from convergence has tended to overlook cultural and economic realities, although there is an element of convergence in the idea of cross-media taste-contamination. Even though Uzanne was able to ponder the change in status of authors with good voices, he could not anticipate radio's dependence on the automobile for its survival. And cultural attitudes may be much slower to change than technology: "Only Twinkie-charged insomniac dweebs like to read on the screen,"[26] declared one 1992 reader unimpressed by electronic text.

More to the point, Frugé's view of the book as consumer commodity brings up a substantial area too often ignored by theorists, even those occupied by the ergonomics of new media. What the scientists and theorists may envision as possible, feasible, let alone desirable for the consumer may have little to do with what is actually supported by the economy. Thus, the idea that all household communication devices will eventually be housed in a single unit, with portable, walk-about satellite stations, hinges not only on the eventual acceptance by the consumer but also on industry perceptions of the most lucrative product structure. The unavailability of consumer CD players that can also record is indicative of the force of that mindset. With respect to books, the question may not be whether consumers will continue to buy them; it may be whether media corporations see books as a commodity they are committed to selling.

The third assumption behind many predictions about the future of books was that of - surprise - complementarity. By dint of specialization among media functions and interaction of media within an information and communication system, new media - following a period of shifting and settling - are thought to take on complementary functions with respect to other media. Further, they may even work synergistically to enhance each other's role. In this orientation, each medium has a set of differentiable purposes or uses; and a new medium will only take on those functions it can do better than an existing medium does, leaving some of the original functions to be performed by the tried and true original medium. Closely related media may even stimulate use of both - as for example, the synergistic relationship among movies and television, wherein television provides both advertising carrier and secondary distribution for films.

This orientation - reflected in statements about how television can stimulate reading and how reading can interpret television - is grounded in a recognition of the complexities of the media system but also, perhaps, in an over-optimistic view of the audience's receptive capacities. While it may be reassuring that a reader can have Catullus, Swinburne, Carl Hiassen, and Dilbert on the same shelf above a computer on which they may be read or Mech Warrior may be played, the challenge is to imagine an infinitely segmentable media market. Moreover, as Witcoff suggested in 1955, cross-stimulation among media could easily result in a homogenizing of expectations on the part of the public, at worst a sort of Gresham's Law of mutually induced deterioration.[27] And finally, the idea of complementarity presumes a permanence and orderliness to a media system that has already been demonstrably disturbed by economic, social and - of course - technological changes.

The purpose in identifying these three views of the interaction of old media with new - rivalry, convergence, and complementarity - was not to identify any one as having been most persuasive but rather to note their interwoven existence in the past century's forecasts about the future of the book. When confronted with a pronouncement that books may die, one might well look first at the eulogist. A few have been apologists for the glossy, brand new, improved, and patentable. But most have either been theoreticians inclined to follow the trajectory of technology to the furthest imaginable conclusion, or else those whose professional lives as practitioners are at stake. Those practitioners - in publishing, librarianship, bookselling, even education - may well identify grounds for "doom" or "hope" that may not yet have occurred to theoreticians. "Market segmentation" was in practice long before the phrase "interpretive communities" became current. Looking at the technological possibilities is not the same as identifying corporate priorities, school board politics, teenagers' habits, or advertisers whims. Books are, finally, intricately interrelated to the rest of the media system - economically, socially, intellectually, even symbolically; and those who have envisioned or feared their wholesale removal from the system have generally underestimated that involvement. If one would predict the death of books, it is necessary to know how they live.


Asheim, Lester. "New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book." Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 281-92.

Bent, Silas. "Radio Steals the Press' Thunder." Independent 119 (9 Jul. 1927): 33-34, 48.

Birkertz, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

"Book Production Is Not Increasing: A Publisher's View of the Publisher's Problems." Current Opinion 78 (Mar. 1925): 305.

"Books and TV." Publishers Weekly 157 (17 Jun. 1950): 2638-9.

Cerf, Bennett. "Trade Winds," Saturday Review of Literature 31 (5 Jun. 1948): 6.

Crane, Gregory. "Historical Perspectives on the Book and Information Technology." Electronic document at Media-in-Transition site,

Eco, Umberto. "Why New Media Won't Kill Books." World Press Review 43 (Jun. 1996): 16-17.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. "The End of the Book?" American Scholar 64 (Autumn 1995): 541-55.

Frugé, August. "Books Are Still for Sale." Saturday Review (16 July 1955): 22.

Heiskell, Andrew. "Have the Newer Media Made Reading Obsolete?" Library Journal 75 (1 Oct. 1050): 1577-78.

Hughes, Rupert. "Viewing with Alarm." The Bookman 49(May 1919): 263.

Kahney, Leander. "Microsoft: Paper Is Dead." Wired News (1 Sept. 1999):

Lacy, Dan. "Books and the Future: A Speculation." Bowker Lectures on Book Publishing." New York: R. R. Bowker, 1957.

Max, D. T. "The End of the Book?" Atlantic Monthly 274 (Sept. 1994): 61-71.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill1964.

______. Gutenberg Galaxy : Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Meadow, Charles T. Ink into Bits: A Web of Converging Media. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998.

______. "On the Future of the Book, or Does It Have a Future." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 26 (Apr. 1995): 187-96.

Mealand, Richard A. "What's Book Got?" Publishers Weekly 150 (9 Nov. 1946): 2716.

Melcher, Frederick M. "Booksellers Discuss Television and Reading." Publishers Weekly 157 (10 Jun. 1950): 2561.

Mitchell, William J. "Homer to Home-Page: Designing Digital Books." Electronic document at "Transformations of the Book," Media-in-Transition site,

Rhodes, Richard, ed. Visions of Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Robertson, Douglas S. "The Information Revolution." Communication Research 17.

Stern, Madeleine B. "The First Half-Century of Publishers Weekly 1972-1922." Publishers Weekly 151 (18 Jan. 1947): 311-13.

Sullivan, Jennifer and Leander Kahney. "E-Books: Read `em and Keep." Wired News (2 Sept. 1999):

Train, Arthur, Jr. "Catching Up with the Inventors," Harper's 176 (Mar. 1938): 363-73.

Uzanne, Octave. "The End of Books." Scribners 16 (Aug. 1894): 223-34.

Webb, Thompson, Jr. "Developments in Variant Forms of the Book." Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 306-18.

Weinberger, Eliot. "Symposium: Twelve Visions," compiled by Charles Barber.. Media Studies Journal 6(Summer 1992): 41-43.

Winger, Howard W. "Historical Perspectives on the Role of the Book in Society." Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 293-305.

Witcoff, Raymond H. "Developments in Mass Communication." Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 319-325.


1 Octave Uzanne, "The End of Books," Scribners Magazine 16 (Aug. 1894), 224. return

2 Illustrations for Uzanne's article were by A. Robida. return

3 Uzanne, 225. return

4 Uzanne, 226. return

5 Uzanne, 227. return

6 Uzanne, 225. return

7 Rupert Hughes, "Viewing with Alarm," Bookman 49 (May 1919), 263. return

8 "Book Production Is Not Increasing," Current Opinion (Mar. 1925), 305. return

9 Ibid.return

10 Silas Bent, "Radio Steals the Press' Thunder," Independent 119 (9 July 1926), 33. return

11 Arthur Train, "Catching Up with the Inventors," Harper's 176 (Mar. 1938), 369-70.return

12 Richard Mealand, "What's a Book Got?" Publishers Weekly 150 (9 Nov. 1946). return

13 Bennett Cerf, "Trade Winds," Saturday Review 31 (5 Jun. 1948), 6. return

14 "Books and TV," Publishers Weekly 157 (17 Jun. 1950), 2639. return

15 Frederick W. Melcher, Publishers Weekly 157 (10 Jun. 1950), 2561. return

16 August Frugé, "Books Are Still for Sale," Saturday Review (16 Jul. 1955), 22. return

17 See Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1995), especially articles by Lester Asheim, Howard W. Winger, Thompson Webb, and Raymond H. Wittcoff. return

18 Dan Lacy, "Books and the Future: A Speculation," Bowker Lectures on Book Publishing (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1957), 341. return

19 Lacy, 354-56. return

20 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hil1, 1964); and Gutenberg Galaxy : Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962). return

21 Charles T. Meadow, Ink into Bits: A Web of Converging Media (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998); and "On the Future of the Book, or Does It Have a Future" (unpublished article, January 1995). return

22 Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994). return

23 William T. Mitchell, "Homer to Home-Page: Designing Digital Books." Electronic document at "Transformations of the Book," Media-in-Transition site, return

24 Lester Asheim, "New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book," Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955), 292. return

25 See for example, Leander Kahney, "Microsoft: Paper Is Dead," Wired News (1 Sept. 1999),; and Jennifer Sullivan and Leander Kahney, "E-Books: Read `em and Keep," Wired News (2 Sept. 1999), return

26 Eliot Weinberger, "Symposium: Twelve Visions," compiled by Charles Barber, Media Studies Journal 6(Summer 1992), 41-43. return

27 Raymond H. Wittcoff, "Developments in Mass Communication," Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955). return